Born:Spring Place, February 1765
Died:Near Vann's Ferry, February 21, 1809
Brutal, violent, intemperate. These are the most common words used in regard to James Vann, and for good reason. But James Vann made significant changes to the Cherokee world during his life and a lasting change in his death.
James Vann's father?
"Who is the father of James Vann" is a controversial question. According to Gary E. Moulton of the University of Nebraska, Clement Vann was the father. William H. Vann in the book Cherokee Origins believes that Joseph Vann was the father, while Virginia Vann Perry claims a man named James Vann was the father. Vann genealogy expert Belinda Pierce thinks John Joseph Vann was the father.
According to the experts at the Vann House in Chatsworth, Georgia, Vann's father is unknown. Clement raised the boy from a young age.
The son of a Scottish trader and his Cherokee wife, Vann's father Joseph and step-father Clement were among the first white traders in the Cherokee Nation. Vann's early recognition came because he was one of the few Cherokee who could read English. As a teenager he was called to read letters to the tribe from Tennessee Governor John Sevier and others.
When poor relations with Sevier's settlers deteriorated into open warfare in the early 1790's, James Vann joined the Lower Towns Cherokee in a planned raid on Knoxville, Tennessee. During a raid on Cavett's Station, the Cavett family surrendered to Bob Benge, who promised safe transport for all remaining family members. A chief named Doublehead was not consulted for the negotiations. Angry at Benge, Doublehead and his friends attacked Cavett's Station. Benge, John Watts (who was leading the raid) and Vann tried to protect the family to no avail. Doublehead killed a young white boy Vann had hoisted to his saddle to protect, then turned and tried to attack Vann. Vann avoided the blow by turning his horse. To the Cherokee the title "Mankiller" is a term of great respect. From that day forward, whenever angered, Vann called Doublehead "Baby-killer." Vann would never forgive nor forget the treachery.
Vann was instrumental in selecting a warrior, Ridge, to represent the village of Pine Log in council. Ridge was present three years earlier when James Vann stood up to Doublehead at Cavett's Station. A third man, Charles Hicks, lived in the town and together the three quickly became good friends. Over the next fifteen years this Cherokee Triumvirate would steer the young Cherokee Nation on a path towards acculturation. Vann was becoming a wealthy farmer, slaveholder, and respected negotiator for the Cherokees.
In 1800, while on an East Coast trip that included a visit to Washington, D.C., Vann met a group of Moravian missionaries from North Carolina who desired to spread the Gospel and teach Cherokee children. Vann convinced them to move to Spring Place, south of the soon-to-be-built Vann House, to start a mission and school. He presented his idea to the tribal council, in part so his two-year old son Joseph might attend. That autumn Doublehead tried to delay the council from making a decision about allowing the school. Vann and Hicks drew Doublehead aside and informed him that whether or not he wanted it, the Moravians would have a school. Many of the mixed-blood Cherokee supported Vann. Doublehead let the council vote and the vote was in favor of the Moravians. He took the opportunity to tell Vann to stop criticizing him.
The tribal council had begun to factionalize. Ridge, Hicks and Vann would stand opposed to Doublehead on almost every issue, and Doublehead became jealous as the wealth of the Triumvirate grew. With his skillful handling of the Federal Road negotiations in 1803, Vann ended up with a tavern, store, ferry and an additional estate on the Chattahoochee River, and the highway would run directly past both his new home and the Moravian school at Spring Place. Hicks and Ridge also owned multiple businesses and were gaining in wealth, yet Doublehead was clearly ahead of all three.
The Triumvirate realized that white traders and government agents were willing to do business with Doublehead because he was willing to accept bribes. Benefiting from Hicks' association with Indian Agent Return J. Meigs, for whom Hicks translated papers, Vann learned that on at least three occasions Doublehead had illegally sold Cherokee land to whites, a crime punishable by death. At first, few people would listen to Vann as he exposed Doublehead's activities, but slowly he convinced a majority of the Nation that Doublehead was indeed committing crimes.
James Vann, The Ridge and Alexander Saunders were selected to kill Doublehead for his betrayal, possibly with the approval of the tribal council. At the appointed time Vann was too drunk to commit the murder. It was the first in a series of botched attempts that eventually ended in Doublehead's death at the hand of Vann's friend Ridge. This was one of a complex series of events led by Vann that would become known as "The Revolt of the Young Chiefs.
Cherokee historian Don Shadburn talked about Vann's married life. "His wives included three sisters, daughters of Walter Scott, a South Carolina Indian trader-- Elizabeth Scott (mother of Delilah Vann McNair), Polly Scott, and Peggy Scott. Jennie Foster and Nancy Ann Brown (half-sister of the Scott girls) were also wives. Nancy was Joe Vann's mother."
He was known to beat people, including his wives, for little or no reason, and the Cherokee Nation empowered him as head of part of the Lighthorse Patrol, a loose-knit Cherokee police force. By this time Vann's drinking problem was out of control. He became paranoid about theft. When Alexander Saunders tried to talk to Vann about his problems, Vann told him to leave.
James Vann lived by the sword, James Vann died by the sword. Celebrating at Tom Buffington's tavern along the Old Federal Road northwest of Frogtown a single shot rang out from a partially opened door and James Vann fell dead, holding a bottle in one hand, a drink in the other. His Negro slave quickly picked up his son Joseph and Vann's billfold and spirited the boy back to Spring Place. Vann's body was buried near the tavern. Speculation as to who committed the crime is rampant even nearly 200 years after the act. Was it Alexander Saunders, whom Vann had exiled? Or maybe a relative of Doublehead's, getting revenge for his kin's murder? Most likely it was the relative of a man Vann had recently killed.
In death James Vann would have a major effect on the matralineal Cherokee society. The society was structured around Cherokee women, not men. When a man married he became a member of his wife's clan. Property passed through a wife when a warrior died. Vann, in line with white law of the time, left his inheritance to his son Joseph. The tribal council gave some of the inheritance to his wives and other children, but Joseph got the bulk.
When he died at the age of 43 Vann was one of the richest men not only in the Cherokee Nation but in the United States. His beautiful home along the Federal Highway still bears his name, Vann House, and is a popular stop along North Georgia's Chieftains Trail.
Vann is often dealt with in a negative light by his biographers. Lela Latch Lloyd describes him as "excessively cruel, and sadistic, a domineering demon." Henry Malone says he was "...far-famed, little beloved and greatly feared."
Chief Vann House
Biographies Biographies of famous, not so famous and infamous people from the North Georgia area or who had an effect on North Georgia Cherokee Indians Explore the life of the Cherokee Indians in their "Enchanted Land"